The Azzurri hopes to end 44 years of drought at continental competition. For a nation which has won the World Cup the maximum time from the continent, and yet won the continental honours only once, this is a pivotal tournament. Rossella Marrai brings to life the Azzurri preparation and issues
Italy will look to replicate their only Euro success from 1968, forty-four years later, when they kick off their tournament in Poland on June 10, against the defending European champions Spain. Drawn alongside the 2010 FIFA World Cup winners and the Azzurri in Group C, lies the tricky Croatia and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland; a group Cesare Prandelli was well conscious to the difficulty of the various tasks which lies ahead.
“It’s a very difficult group. We didn’t want to meet Trapattoni for many reasons. Plus we’ll meet the world champions. We have to be well prepared in June (2012), because it will be a very tough tournament for us,” Prandelli told Rai shortly after the Euro draw took place.
“I don’t know who will be the worst opponent between Croatia and Ireland, it will depend on the physical shape in June.
“I know that Trapattoni will try to get the best results until the end. Trapattoni told me that he wanted to bring Ireland to train in Italy before the tournament, but now he will change his plans. We will stay in Krakow.”
There is little to be said about Spain that isn’t already known to the football fans, but it is the remaining two teams where things can get complicated for the Azzurri. Hoping to progress past the first round, shockingly only managing to surpass once in the last three editions of the tournament, the Italian coach has his work cut out.
After the disaster of 2010 World Cup under Marcello Lippi, Prandelli has built a squad which ensured a swift qualification and his players became one of the first teams guaranteed to be travelling to Poland and Ukraine. Conceding the lowest amount of goals in the qualifiers out of all qualifying nations, with the ball beating Gianluigi Buffon on just two occasions, it is expected- especially given the several doubts on the opposite end of the field to have hit the squad- that the defence will once more play a huge part for Italy.
Undergoing a relatively smooth travel in the qualifiers, many are expecting a similar walk in the park from the former Fiorentina coach’s men in June; however things have since changed in the turn of the New Year.
Guiseppe Rossi, who was capped seven times in the qualifiers, has since been ruled out of the Euro after he has to undergo further knee surgery to repair torn ligaments, while Antonio Cassano- who was the most capped forward for Italy with 10 appearances- will have little over two months action under his belt after suffering a surprising stroke in October.
Prandelli had previously stated that he would wait and save a spot for the two forwards, as they are ‘best-suited to our style of play’ but now it seems as if all hopes remain on the former Real Madrid man, who so inspiringly lead the four times World Champions in the group qualifiers.
Mario Balotelli is another character, whose future is in doubt after he was left out of the team’s friendlies due to previous incidences of him breaking the ‘code of ethics’ Prandelli has so clearly laid out. It was against Arsenal where Super Mario may have dug his grave further following his dismissal for unsporting behavior.
Often the face of controversy, the big question falls on whether or not the 54-year-old should bend the rules for the former Inter player, or stick by them and leave behind another one of Italy’s three strongest forwards.
With no Rossi and a Cassano who will be lacking full season fitness, leaving behind the 21-year-old could prove to be Prandelli’s biggest pitfall seeing that there is no other current striker who made waves in Serie A this season.
Unless some twist of unfortunate fate had to occur on Buffon, he will command from in between the sticks, while fellow Scudetto winners Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are expected to be starters; having tallied up the most appearances out of the defensive unit. Andrea Barzagli, another Juventus defender, can legitimately claim to be the best of the trio in Serie A and two of these three would appear in Prandelli’s backline.
Catenaccio has probably been Italy’s most potent strategy against big guns and with little depth in the attacking front force; a Juventus-inspired backline is expected to conduct the way to any potential success.
The 2011-12 Scudetto winning champions will have an equal amount of inspiration in the midfield with Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo set to be the focal points of play. The Juventus duo paired up next to each other with six and nine appearances respectively in 2011-12 and are expected to do the same alongside the deep lying defensive midfielder of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi.
Riccardo Montolivo was the midfielder with the second highest number of appearances in the qualifiers, falling one short of Pirlo’s tally. Given his displays of having to independently steer Fiorentina to Serie A safety, the midfielder will prove to be equally fundamental, notching up a tally of three assists to his name in the qualifiers-more than any Azzurri player.
It has been suggested that the furthest the Azzurri may be able to progress is to a semi-final spot but the tactician has the utmost faith in his current crop of players and will not settle for anything less than the ultimate success.
“I wouldn’t be happy to accept fourth place at the European Championship. I want to dream and we will set off with that dream,” noted Prandelli. “This side has performed above the expectations, but we have plenty of room to improve.”
Room to improve there certainly is as the Azzurri have been far from impressive in their international friendly games coming into the tournament. Since then, Prandelli has made it clear- after trying several evolving formations- that he has come up with a set formation and he is planning to keep it rigid.
“I need to pick the players that suit it- not those who can adapt,” he added.
The Orzinouvi-born coach underlined the failure that was the 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa but what he should have done is to point out the only constant that Italy have had in the European championship – is their general lack of achievement. Yet it could be a pointer to the only time the Azzurri won the European Championship in 1968, they had come off a similar shameful exit in the previous world cup of 1966.
Despite being a dominant world powerhouse in football, the Azzurri have constantly proven to be underachievers in the Euro, bringing home the title just once. The Euro has often proven to be an unwanted distraction after a long domestic campaign, but this time it seems that Prandelli may have instilled more of a hunger for success in his current crop of players and without doubt he won’t be taking players who feel more obligated to be there than willing.
Failing to meet the expectations of their doting ‘tifosi’ on so often an occasion, recent times it has become the norm that less is expected of the famous players who sport the famous Azzurri shirt. Nevertheless, the encouraging qualifying campaign has seemed to have left some sort of air of optimism before the final trip to Ukraine and Poland, with the players carrying the belief that the tides have turned since their disappointing run after the 2006 World Cup triumph.
One such player who thinks the four times World Champions are a work in progress is the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder Thiago Motta, and he believes his fellow colleagues’ determination to give it their utmost will fall in favour of them in June.
“There is still something missing, but I don’t think it’s bad to arrive at EURO with high expectations,” the PSG player told UEFA.com. “Teams like Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are the favourites, but our preparations are going really well, so that we will be 100% when we get there: that will be Italy’s strength.”
It is difficult to predict the often unpredictable nature of the Mediterranean outfit’s mentality, but should they manage to continue in the cohesive unit they created in the qualifying campaign. And should Prandelli manage to create a hunger pang for success in his boys, there is little doubt- with the quality in which ‘La Nazionale’ possesses- that the 23 selected players could bring home one more trophy to add to the cabinet.
A Year On: 5 African Finalists of World Cup 2010
The FIFA World Cup kicked off in Africa on June 11th, 2010 and the razzmatazz that followed was a historic one. It all started when FIFA announced South Africa as hosts of the tournament on 15May 2004, beating off competition from Morocco. While the tournament wasn’t due to kick off until some years’ time, South Africa and Africa as a whole was already reaping benefits evident in tourism boom and infrastructure improvement. Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa graced the competition as Africa’s representatives. Before the tourney began, consulting firm Grant Thornton estimated that the event will contribute at least R51.1-billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). Sani Lulu, then head of the Nigeria Football Federation had this to say before the start of the tournament: “Nigeria, which is competing at the World Cup, plans to open an exhibition on the sidelines of the tournament to promote investment in the oil-rich nation. We wish to showcase Nigeria and its enormous potentials via a Nigeria village at the World Cup.” Such was the anticipation of the various African participants to utilize the opportunities that the first World Cup in Africa would bring. More focus would have been on South Africa, the hosts.
I can safely say Nigeria didn’t gain much from partaking in the competition. Only notable increments were the US$1 million FIFA rewarded all participating teams for preparation costs and the US$8 million given to them for exiting the competition after the group stage. The Competition only served as a podium to highlight the numerous problems of the football nation. After a dismal display by the Nigerians, they returned home to meet a bombshell as the Nigerian president was utterly disappointed. “Mr. President has directed that Nigeria will withdraw from all international football competition for the next two years to enable Nigeria to reorganise its football.” Those were the words of Ima Niboro, Jonathan’s (The Nigerian President) senior communications adviser. The decision came a day after the executive committee of the NFF met to recap the country’s performance in which they picked up a single point and finished bottom of a group also containing South Korea, Greece and Argentina. Ultimately, Jonathan was forced to lift the ban after FIFA intervened. Barely anything has improved since then. This is manifested in the FIFA rankings. Nigeria was ranked 30th in the world and 4th in Africa after the World Cup. Now they occupy the 43rd and 6th positions, both globally and in Africa respectively.
Algeria left South Africa with a point from three matches. In the eyes of some it was a complete success seeing that participation in the competition ended a 24-year absence. Players like Djamel Mesbah and Hassan Yebda earned worldwide recognition as a result. FIFA’s decision to allow players over the age of 21 who have turned out for countries in junior football, to switch loyalties if they qualify for another senior international team has really helped in revitalizing Algerian football. This has allowed many quality players with French heritage to join the Algerian squad. Though Algeria has plummeted in the FIFA rankings since participating in the 2010 World Cup moving from 33rd position to its current 46th in the world, considerable developments in their football can’t be discounted. They too have moved two places down in the continental ranking since then, moving from 5th place to 7th place. But they have had some movement in the table being Africa’s biggest movers in the rankings in the month of April this year moving up 15 places to 40th position in the world.
After being placed alongside Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in the so called “Group of Death”, not much was expected from Les Éléphants. Africa’s strongest footballing nation went out of the tournament prematurely with their heads held high even though they couldn’t make it past the group stage. That did not take anything from a Cote d’Ivoire team that has been slowly ramping up its football over the years. They have since maintained momentum, establishing themselves as Africa’s best footballing nation. They have held on to the number one slot in Africa in the FIFA rankings, moving from 26th in the world to 16th so far. The country’s success in football though has done little to quell the perpetual Ivorian political crisis as the economy is still in a mess.
World Cup 2010 was Cameroon’s sixth appearance in this event – an African record. Much was expected from the highest ranked African team, but their hopes were shattered after they failed to qualify from a tough group. The Lions were the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Denmark. Cameroon’s poor outing in the World Cup meant they went down 21 places in the FIFA rankings as well as to 7th position from their previous table topping position in Africa. Ongoing leadership disputes on and off the field have led to their steady downfall in recent years. They are now languishing in 8th position in Africa.
A quarter final exit in only their second appearance meant Ghana went away with prize money of US$14 million. A very young Ghanaian team made the continent proud. Rebranding of the national team and worldwide cognizance resulted in its players becoming hot property. Notable moves after the World Cup were Asamoah Gyan’s move from Rennes to Sunderland and Kevin Prince Boateng’s move from Portsmouth to Milan via Genoa. Ghana has become the proverbial honey where bees feed on. There are football clinics where children are brought together, some well-known local and international football idols and administrators to inspire the youth to greater heights. Club sides in Europe now want partnerships with local clubs or academies in Ghana. A good example is the pact between Holland’s Feyenoord and Feyenoord academy in Ghana. Such is the growth of Ghanaian football that the dictum now is “catch the next Asamoah Gyan from the cradle.” This has led to various football talent hunts in Ghana.
A Football Clinic in Ghana
Though the Bafana Bafana were eliminated at the group stage, hosting the World Cup had a gargantuan impact on their economy. There was amelioration of infrastructure since a lot of money was pumped into the sector prior to the World Cup. An estimated 130,000 jobs were created in the construction, hospitality and transport industry. According to Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, 309,000 tourists visited the country for the World Cup and spent over R3.6 billion (0.5 bn $) on the economy. President Jacob Zuma confirmed that the security demands of the tournament now meant the country had an additional 40,000 police officers. A monolithic rise in reputation amongst other countries of the world can’t be left out. “World Cup may be over but we’re still revelling in the profound positive effects this one event has brought to our country,” said Sthu Zungu, President, South African Tourism, North America. The tourism industry was one of the biggest gainers. According to Grant Thornton, 96% of visitors to the World Cup confirmed that they would visit South Africa again, while 92% said they would recommend it to friends and relatives. With the World Cup a total success, South Africa has made a bold statement in security to the world at a time when terrorism has become the order of the day and violence lacerating the peace of Africa nay the world.
Urban road system around Cape Town
This speaks volumes of its credentials as a peaceful nation and a friendly clime for those with business interests. The launch of latest James Bond novel in Cape Town is evidence to the increasing awareness. On a football sense, the World Cup served as a rostrum for players from the national team to showcase their skills to the world. The flourish of the South African Premier League was one that was discernible before the World Cup and now its worldwide awareness has heightened. The various stadia used during the World Cup are now being used by club sides as the domestic league is operating at the highest standards. The availability of quality facilities which is a boon to the young aspiring footballers will mean more quality players in the nation’s national pool in the long run. Kaizer Chief’s Knowledge Musona was sold for over 1 million £ to Germany’s Hoffenheim on July 28, 2011. Such transfer fee is a feature of quality leagues. The South African Premier League is not short of partnerships with European sides – Ajax Cape Town and AFC Ajax of Holland, Supersport United and Tottenham Hotspur of England are good examples. Bongani Khumalo became the first offspring of the union between Supersport United and Tottenham on October 26, 2010 when it was announced that Khumalo would be joining Tottenham Hotspur in January 2011 from partner club Supersport United after a successful trial in September, subject to a work permit for a fee of £1.5 million.
Bongani Khumalo, product of the South African Premier League
More examples of tiptop moves from the South African premier League to Europe include Bidvest Wits’ goalkeeper Darren Keet to Belgian club KV Kortrijk in June 2011 and Ajax Cape Town’s Thulani Serero to AFC Ajax. Only a vibrant league can churn out such quality players and only quality facilities like those from the World Cup can be substrate for a vibrant league. The fact that the South African Premier League is the seventh biggest earner of sponsorship revenue among football leagues worldwide has shown that South African football is refusing to look back. They have risen from 66th to 51st so far in the FIFA rankings since hosting the World Cup. Even an Olympic bid is being mooted. In a recent development, S. Africa will replace Libya as 2013 Nations Cup hosts as the latter nation has been torn apart by violence.
Tout ensemble, South Africa and Ghana were the biggest donees amassing developments in various sectors of the country including football. The other African countries that took part were far less successful as developments have been restricted. Truth is that the 2010 World Cup has gone a long way in extricating Africa from a quandary that has seen other parts of the world view it mediocrely.
Obasa Olalekan is an ardent lover of AC Milan. He can be contacted via twitter @obsylakeside